The summer of 2023 was a time of climatic unrest across the world, but especially in the United States. July and August went down in the record books as the two hottest months globally in recorded history. And, within the space of two months, two abnormal weather events struck: Hurricane Hilary off the American West Coast and monsoon-like rains at the Burning Man Festival in
Nevada. The direct impact of these events is evident, but how they fit into the larger context of climate change poses a more complicated question.
On their own, both Hurricane Hilary and the rains at Burning Man were rare phenomena that simply happened to fall within the same year. However, the scientific community maintains concern about the recent increase in frequency and intensity of previously-rare weather events.
Associate Professor of Biology Bradley Carlson concluded that Hurricane Hilary and the Burning Man rains were events in a larger pattern due to the increased frequency of inclement weather events.
“Rare things are always happening and there’s always been extremes,” said Carlson. “But what’s standing out is that it seems like a lot of extreme things are happening all at once.”
One possible contributing factor to some of this year’s severe weather is the El Niño weather cycle. While areas of California are normally protected from tropical storms for a variety of factors– including colder Pacific Ocean temperatures and east to west wind patterns–the El Niño phase can neutralize some of those factors. Professor of Biology Amanda Ingram explained how the El Niño cycle helped make Hurricane Hilary possible.
“The Pacific Ocean gets warmer, so that helped the storm get bigger in the first place,” said Ingram. “And certain weather events in the center of our continent helped minimize the typical east to west winds. And so the combination of those factors, plus the fact that everything is warmer because of climate change allowed that storm to move inland in a way it usually doesn’t.”
Diagnosing what role climate change plays in any one weather event is difficult, but the overall pattern of climate change contains more tangible evidence for the effects it can have on the globe. The key, says Carlson, is temperature.
“In terms of extreme weather, it all has its roots in temperature. The sea level rise is because of elevated temperatures,” said Carlson. “Warmer temperatures are melting ice from the polar ice caps, but another factor is that the water is getting warmer, and warm water expands. So the ocean is actually getting deeper as it gets warmer.”
As lawmakers search for ways to combat the most concerning effects of climate change, controversy often arises over how much responsibility individual countries should shoulder when mounting a global response. Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Matthew Harvey addressed some of these issues.
“Climate change is something where there’s not always a clear cause and effect,” said Harvey. “It’s really difficult, for example, to decide whether the United States or Great Britain or whoever is responsible for ‘X’ percent of climate change, because we don’t have the historical data going back to the Industrial Revolution.”
While large-scale climate policy often moves slowly through political systems and can be difficult to implement, many ways exist on the local level where impact can be made. Ingram said simple tasks like recycling, driving less and adjusting thermostats may seem insignificant on the individual level, but when they are adopted by a community, the results can be extremely impactful.
Seeking to have a positive impact on your local environment is one of the most important aspects to combating climate change, Harvey explained. By taking time to think about our relationship with nature as a community, and how we can better ourselves and the environment through our actions, we open ourselves up to experiencing the world in more beautiful and wondrous ways.